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The Daily Tar Heel

Newcomers, New Attitude Help Lift Gymnastics

UNC in Regionals for 1st Time Since 1991

Various members of the North Carolina gymnastics team stopped what they were doing for a few moments to watch her from around Fetzer Gym. Quietly at first, Curley's teammates urged her on in a crescendo of cheers.

"Come on, Maddy! Come on!" they shouted, with senior captain Lisa Companioni and sophomore Anna Wilson leading the chorus.

By the time Curley dismounted, the whole team was watching. She stuck her landing to loud applause.

It was just another late-season practice for the 22nd-ranked Tar Heels, which will travel to Morgantown, W.Va., this weekend to compete in the NCAA Southeast Regionals. But practice hasn't always been so constructive.

"At the beginning of the season, the lineups kept changing every week, and we were just all kind of frazzled," Curley said. "We were all kind of edgy, and we were really competitive against each other -- and it wasn't a competitive like 'work together' kind of thing. It was like we were pitted against one another."

Perhaps some of that negativity was left over from last season, when UNC finished a disappointing 11-10. Injuries and burnout plagued the 2000-01 Tar Heels, which placed fifth in the East Atlantic Gymnastics League Championships at season's end. To make matters worse, the team's Most Outstanding Gymnast, Brooke Wilson, graduated.

But this year's version of the Tar Heels was undaunted by the loss of Wilson and by the rough start to fall practice.

"We knew that we had a bunch of talent still left on the team after Brooke left," said freshman Olivia Trusty. "We knew it was really going to be a team effort this year, just focusing on everybody making their routines."

To restore that focus, Companioni and fellow senior Monica Middleton called a team meeting.

"Lisa and Monica sat us down, and they said, 'We're going to work on being a team. This is what it's going to take,'" Curley said.

The Tar Heels began trying to strengthen their relationships with each other. They read inspirational quotes before each practice, and they focused on techniques rather than scores.

Their efforts paid dividends as the season progressed. The Tar Heels finished with a 26-7 record, the best in team history. They qualified for regionals as a team for the first time since 1991 by winning the EAGL Championship for the first time in the event's seven-year history. And they set a UNC and EAGL record with a 196.425 score in the team all-around competition.

All told, North Carolina broke or tied three school records at the championships.

"It's exciting because these records that we're breaking are ones that were never broken in previous years, recently," said Wilson, whose 9.975 on floor tied the UNC all-time mark. "In the all-around, it's just spectacular. We creamed the old record."

A large reason for the Tar Heels success has been increased depth. The additions of four talented freshmen and sophomore transfer Wilson have provided security against injury and off days.

"We've always been a good team, but we never had the luxury if someone gets sick, or someone has an ankle sprain, of having another person to turn to," said Derek Galvin, who is in his 21st season as UNC's coach. "This year it's competitive just to make the lineup. It's not so much a drastic turnaround in terms of talent as much as we got people healthy, and we do have that extra depth."

Strong veteran performers like Middleton, Companioni, Curley, Natalie Halbach and Fritzie Cathcart were complemented perfectly by the newcomers. North Carolina's already strong floor squad was further enhanced by Wilson and Trusty. The improvement was even more significant on the vault, where Trusty and fellow freshman Amy Williams made the All-EAGL first team.

"Having five really awesome new people come in, they were really inspiring because they all have crazy amounts of energy," Curley said. "Like the Energizer Bunny, they just keep going and going. I'm very competitive, so I loved having that push behind me, and I think it really brought out that competitive edge in our whole team."

That edge will have to be sharp for the Tar Heels to advance past regionals.

UNC will have to lean on its strengths, the floor exercise and the vault, and hope for a strong performance in its weakest event, the bars. But the order of proceedings this weekend should help out the Tar Heels. They will start on the floor, then go to the vault, the bars and finish on the beam.

"I like being in a situation where we begin on floor because that's an event where we can create a lot of energy," Galvin said. "We can get some attention early on and get some momentum going, then use that momentum on the last two events."

There will be no room for error against No. 2 Alabama, No. 11 Minnesota and the three other teams in the top 25. The Tar Heels will have to finish in the top two to advance to nationals, so Galvin said it will be crucial to hit at least five out of six routines on the bars, just to have a chance.

But the Tar Heels are optimistic. Very optimistic.

"We can go all the way," Trusty said. "If we hit our routines that we've been practicing, do it just as we know we can, then we can really go all the way. We'd just have to really be perfect to do that."

Added Curley: "Alabama's the number two team, and it seems like trying to get to the moon to beat them, but if we hit everything, and they don't, it's completely possible that we could beat them.

"I'm thinking we could break more records when we go there. We are still having really good practices. No one really seems burned out."

UNC's focus in practice is readily apparent, but Galvin is making sure they remember the fun things, too. Like picking up their EAGL Championship rings.

"You don't have to get a ring if you don't want," Galvin told his team with a coy smile just before Tuesday's practice began. "You can wait till we win the national championship."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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